Jessica Walsh’s Brandventory: The Politics of Brands, and the Value of Human Connection
After 10 years of working with Stefan Sagmeister and seven years as a partner/co-founder of Sagmeister & Walsh, in 2019 Jessica Walsh went solo and launched &Walsh. Her creative agency focuses on, among other things, helping brands “find their weird,” and oftentimes that requires what she calls “brand therapy.”
I spoke with Walsh about launching her studio, and during our conversations she told me why that therapy is necessary, discussed the interplay between politics and brands, and touched upon one of my personal favorite brands: Hello Kitty.
A child of the ’90s, Walsh grew up with Hello Kitty and Furby—which she never considered to be brands, but in retrospect, she realizes they are. “I love Furbies,” she exclaims. “I realize now that it was a big part of what brands are … humans supporting brands, buying things that align with our personalities and our beliefs. That was the start, but I didn’t think, these are amazing things and I want to be a designer.”
(Hello Kitty and Furby still enjoy a large following, although today’s Furby is more of an interactive and app-driven toy. A six-foot-tall customized Furby went viral recently.)
Nostalgia for the ’80s and ’90s has been stronger than ever these days, especially with the ’80s references made in shows such as “Stranger Things,” which Walsh watched, and reflected upon. “They capitalized on nostalgia in a smart way. What they did with brand partnerships was interesting: They worked with 75+ different companies to recreate the look of the ’80s. They didn’t charge the brands but required them to help promote the show to extend reach. It was a win-win for both sides, fueled largely by the strong emotions that nostalgia conjures. I read somewhere that nostalgia these days is particularly strong because of how fast-paced technology is going, leaving people longing for feelings of simplicity and comfort, how things were in the simpler, good old days.”
Doing the Right Thing
Those familiar with Walsh and her work know that she takes risks, and she believes that brands—big or small—should do the same. “Brands should not be afraid of being political,” says Walsh. “There have been many reports and studies … brands that have taken a visible stance with political and social changes have seen increases in sales and brand loyalty. It's important to note though, that consumers are more savvy than ever. They can tell when something is fake vs. performative allyship for the sake of selling products. One of the worst examples is the Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad flop. When it’s dishonest, people see right through it.”
The controversial ad starring Jenner has been called, among other things, tone deaf. Mocked in a Saturday Night Live sketch and turned into one meme after another, Pepsi’s mistake was avoidable, Walsh says. “Agencies and brands need to make sure they have enough diversity in their leadership to avoid these mistakes. They also need to make sure they are tapping into causes and beliefs they are actually a part of, understand and align to, not just because a target audience segmentation told them to.” For brands, listening to focus groups, studying audience and consumer reports, and having the best creative team still might not be enough. Values, as Walsh tells me time and time again, matter a lot.
Sometimes consumer values and brand values align, and the results are positive. “For a long while I have been fed up with how in the U.S. there is pressure for women around removing body hair.” Not too long after Walsh’s own jab at removing body hair and shaving, what she called “a fantastic commercial” was released by Billie. “A razor company that shows support for women to do whatever they want, and supports natural beauty … now that’s something I can get behind! It aligned with my values so I bought their razors.”
You can find more of Walsh’s irreverent and honest posts on Instagram, tagged #sorryihavenofilterimages✨. Women pose with props, faux products and pseudo brands, and the images take on somewhat of a Cindy Sherman quality. American artist and photographer Sherman has created costumed self-portraits with varying personalities and props, part performance and part critique, always thought-provoking and affecting. Walsh has done the same with #sorryihavenofilterimages✨, topical and timeless—and political, to say the least. “A big part of what we do at our agency is helping brands discover their honest voice and personality and what they stand for, so they can make meaningful connections to their audiences.”
How, when and why those connections get made shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction and shouldn’t be a mere response to “metrics” found in daily or weekly datasets. To really get to the heart of the matter takes therapy, according to Walsh: working with clients to help them identify who they are. “At our studio we want to create unique and timeless brands, and we came up with this strategy of brand therapy to help them develop their brand and personality to ‘find their weird.’ But not just ‘pooping rainbow unicorns’ because that tonality isn’t right for every brand. Being weird could mean your brand is boring. We’re not saying it has to be one personality trait or another.”
For brands, change has always seemed difficult, and maybe that’s because they’re not willing to do the work—the therapy—and also because they’re not focused on what matters. “There is an opportunity for brands to connect with their audience outside just what their product offers. The classic examples we see a lot of are 1:1 brands where there is a defined mission or purpose: TOMS, Bombas or Warby Parker. People love buying into brands that leave a positive impact. We connect to brands that inspire something in us or support us in what we do or believe in, or brands that have a clear mission or purpose.”
Above & Beyond
If there’s one thing that Walsh has, it’s a sense of mission and purpose. You can see it in the work she’s done over the years, and when you look closely at the endeavors she’s launched on her own, you see something special. Walsh founded Ladies, Wine and Design (LW&D) to empower women and nonbinary people. The organization offers mentorship, portfolio reviews and creative meetups.
On the surface, LW&D sounds like a classroom experience with professional development and discussions about art and design, but it’s so much more. The social and nonprofit takes an “intersectional approach to feminism, recognizing the complicated experiences of individuals based on the varying intersections of privilege and oppression. Feminism can not only champion the equality of white, cisgender, straight women. Feminism must be inclusive of all people, championing equality for everyone, no matter their gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality, age or ability.”
Founded in 2015 by Walsh and with over 250 chapters in cities worldwide, this is more than mere side project, and LW&D goes beyond any one person—even Walsh. “I don’t want to be the only voice because there are so many amazing women across the globe. I want to empower women all over the world, they have skills and they can give back, and to get women from all around the world to be mentors and to connect.”
Yes, brands matter, but as Walsh knows, connections—actual, genuine human connections—matter the most and will be the difference-maker in years to come. “I believe brands that not only have great products but also make honest and real connections with consumers are the ones that will be poised to make the biggest leap forward,” she says.
Jason Tselentis teaches design at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC and has contributed to PRINT since 2014. This piece was edited from a series of telephone and email interviews.